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Bolshy Bears and VR Malls Share Floorspace at Tokyo Content Event

While new innovations in the field of digital technology are driving the need for ever-more versatile, high-tech content creation, lingering affection for simpler and far fluffier fare leaves many consumers still craving something cuddly.

Photo: Eye-tech: Typical Japanese content is not always known to travel well.
Eye-tech: Typical Japanese content is not always known to travel well.
Photo: Eye-tech: Typical Japanese content is not always known to travel well.
Eye-tech: Typical Japanese content is not always known to travel well.

With 5G – the new, hyper-fast cellular connectivity protocol – set to be rolled out imminently in many of the world's smarter cities, it can only be a matter of time before some pundit looks to downgrade the technology with a dismissive "but, of course, content is king". This pithy putdown was, after all, deployed when some of today's hoary stalwarts – including virtual reality (VR), social media, and viral marketing – were themselves the new kids on the block. Its ubiquity and predictability, however, doesn't render this particular cliché any less true. Indeed, as we are on the cusp of yet another leap forward in terms of communications, business and entertainment technology, with access to content never before so rapid or so versatile, asking just what we are going to be viewing, listening to or interacting with is a pretty timely question.

Thankfully, a pretty timely answer could be found at Content Tokyo, a three-day expo that brought together seven smaller, inter-related events under one roof – including the 10th Licensing Japan Expo, the 8th Advanced Digital Technology Expo, the 4th PR Design and Branding Expo and the 9th Creators Expo. As the names of the sub-shows clearly suggest, this is an event that straddles every silo of content creation, including production, licensing, character marketing, gaming, graphics, video and pretty much anything else that can be shared via a screen or speaker.

Its mixture of tech and creative inputs actually positions the expo somewhere between the more serious software and hardware offerings of Tokyo IT Week and the fun and games to be had at the Tokyo Game Show. Judging by the attendance and exhibitor levels, as well as its vibrant feel, however, it's clearly an event that has found a ready audience.

Perhaps surprisingly, it wasn't just the newer technologies – your automated marketing and your VR – that got to hold court, with many upgrades to more conventional media also granted floorspace. This served as something of a reminder that all content is not digitally delivered, with robust demand remaining for the more analogue aspects of the licensed character world, including cuddly toys and themed lunch boxes. Nor was everything on show inherently glamorous…

Tokyo-headquartered Fuji Xerox, for instance, was looking to promote its new metallic colours-friendly printing machines – the Iridesse range. According to Group Marketing Communications Manager Masamichi Okui, this can be used to create lavish posters, leaflets, invitation cards and even lunching mats. In another plus, small sample runs can also be produced for prospective clients.

Emphasising the importance of this latter facility, Okui said: "Typically, offset printing cannot deliver true gold and silver colours on small runs. So, when you're negotiating with a client, you may have to show them a CMYK equivalent to gold, which will not match the final colour. Using this machine, though, means you can present the actual colours on a sample run and make any required amendments."

According to Okui, the machine was released last year in order to capitalise on the economic boost expected in the run-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, as well as the Osaka 2025 Expo. With their rich metallic colours reminiscent of traditional Japanese gold-leaf screens, while also seemingly embodying a sense of optimism, it may prove to be a shrewd move.

Assessing the likely knock-on benefits of Japan hosting the Olympics, Okui said: "As we're not an official sponsor, we're not allowed to directly mention anything relating to the event. Despite that, we still see it as a huge business opportunity, especially as Japan's economy is booming right now. As a result, high-quality, premium printing is very much in demand, particularly with regard to marketing and advertising activity."

Indeed, in a world where the consumer is continually inundated with offers, promotions and product information, creating stand-out for brands and businesses is an increasing challenge. This is one reason why licensed character merchandise has taken on added significance in the Japanese market. While their popularity is partly down to the Japanese love of kawaii (cuteness), they have also proven to be an effective way to brand something and communicate key messages without the need for any hard sell or lengthy explanation.

With a clear focus on this particular sector, Bumbleman, a Tokyo-based character creation company, was looking to showcase some of its new properties, while also happy to reacquaint prospective clients with some of its more established ones. Overall, according to Chief Executive Yuki Agusa, it was attending the event in the hope of agreeing licensing deals for anything from clothes and accessories to claw-crane arcade games.

Photo: Fluffiness still out-flanks digital design and innovation for many of Japan’s more kawaii-minded consumers.
Fluffiness still out-flanks digital design and innovation for many of Japan's more kawaii-minded consumers.
Photo: Fluffiness still out-flanks digital design and innovation for many of Japan’s more kawaii-minded consumers.
Fluffiness still out-flanks digital design and innovation for many of Japan's more kawaii-minded consumers.
Photo: Virtual Reality: An opportunity to interact with many likeminded people across the world. And shoot them.
Virtual Reality: An opportunity to interact with many likeminded people across the world. And shoot them.
Photo: Virtual Reality: An opportunity to interact with many likeminded people across the world. And shoot them.
Virtual Reality: An opportunity to interact with many likeminded people across the world. And shoot them.

Explaining the challenge facing his business, he said: "It's quite hard for us to secure sales as we have such a wide focus. Potentially, pretty much any company could be a client of ours as character licensing can work for any business. As a result, we have to take a very open approach, which is why we come here every year and spend so much on promoting ourselves."

Two of the company's best-loved characters are Gloomy Bear and Pity, his owner. Not the most conventional of licensed properties, Gloomy is a cute but violent bear with a tendency to attack his owner.

Detailing the dynamic behind this singular pairing, Agusa said: "The creator of the characters wanted to highlight the way many people neglect or mistreat their pets and toys, a reality that underlies Gloomy's love-hate relationship with Pity. There are also way too many existing cute bear characters, so this particular creator wanted do something different and show the darker side of such characters."

While specialist character creation businesses, such as Bumbleman, are thriving in Japan, not every company wants to "in-source" properties. Yamaha, for instance, the Shizuoka Prefecture-based music and motor-vehicle conglomerate, has developed a proprietary range of fruit-based properties centred on a character called Papuro, as an aid to teaching music to pre-school and primary-school children. Given Yamaha's prominence and resources, it's perhaps not that surprising that the characters have become widely known, creating a number of subsequent licensing opportunities.

Explaining the appeal of the property, Naoko Morita, a member of the company's software development team, said: "Designed with children aged two to 10 years old in mind, Papuro is basically an apple who likes to sing and whose best friends are a bird and a butterfly. There are also eight other characters she regularly associates with.

"Having taken on something of a life of their own, these characters now feature in arcade games and are available as gashapon (vending machine capsule toys). They also appear on stickers and music lesson notebooks, as well as having their own emojis."

Another major feature of Tokyo Content was the prominence of virtual reality, technology that is increasingly being deployed as a marketing tool. In particular, several exhibitors had a focus on how it could be used to allow online shoppers to interact more authentically with the products they were browsing or just as a means of making the whole online purchasing process more enjoyable. As a result, VR had almost as high a profile at the event as it did at last year's Tokyo Game Show.

One Tokyo-based start-up taking a particularly ambitious and immersive approach to exploiting the technology was Mark.Space. Introducing the company's intriguing offer, Chief Executive Dmitry Shamov: "Basically, we have developed an open-source platform for the creation and integration of virtual- and augmented-reality content. This is designed to function as a virtual ecosystem, all supported by a blockchain-enabled crypto-economy.

"Essentially, we have created a kind of virtual world where you can interact with others and even go shopping. It's been under development for three to four years and we are now ready to launch an application that allows you to visit virtual shops and browse 3-D renderings of the merchandise on offer. In the future, we hope to go further still and introduce special sensory equipment that will allow you to feel whether something is hot or cold and even to determine the quality of various materials."

For Shamov, though, it's a system that could offer far more than just an immersive retail experience. Outlining the wider possibilities, he said: "Imagine, for instance, if someone didn't have the opportunity to go to university in the real would, they could study virtually via our system and then end up with a real degree. Beyond that, there would be nothing to stop you co-operating with anyone, anywhere in the world via VR and launching businesses together."

Photo: Content Tokyo 2019: An uber-expo for all things downloadable, viewable and sharable.
Content Tokyo 2019: An uber-expo for all things downloadable, viewable and sharable.
Photo: Content Tokyo 2019: An uber-expo for all things downloadable, viewable and sharable.
Content Tokyo 2019: An uber-expo for all things downloadable, viewable and sharable.

Content Tokyo 2019 took place from 3-5 April at Tokyo Big Sight, Japan. The event attracted 1,242 exhibitors and 48,549 visitors.

Marius Gombrich, Special Correspondent, Tokyo

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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